In case you don’t know, I’m back in California, enjoying the warm weather and being back on campus. Even though I’m now needing to study a lot more than I was during my traveling episode of 2015, I’m still managing to find time to go on adventures and travel to different parts of the state on the weekends. I’d like to share two of my adventures with you within the context of a phenomenon that has been hitting up the media a lot recently: El Niño.

Maybe you’ve heard about El Niño in the context of an unseasonably warm Christmas 2015 on the East Coast, or about how California’s drought may be over (disclaimer: it’s not), but what is El Niño, exactly? Here’s an explanation I wrote on my research blog a couple summers ago:

In Spanish, El Niño means “Little Boy”, but this natural phenomenon doesn’t have anything to do with humans at all, or even with climate change. It is a completely separate weather phenomenon that occurs every 2 to 7 years and has clear patterns that affect weather, temperature, oceans, the atmosphere, organisms, and people. Here is a quick video that explains what El Niño is and how it works:

As the video mentioned, El Niño has some very serious consequences for global climate, food supply, and livelihood for many millions of people. In places that Peru that rely on fish supplies as a major industry and part of their economy, El Niño is devastating. Luckily, El Niño events do not stick around forever, but it is hard to predict when exactly they will strike.

So what are some visible effects of the current El Niño pattern? A couple weeks ago, I went on a field trip with my geology class to Pomponio State Beach, between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz, to examine a 9-million-year-old sedimentary rock formation. We discovered that the area used to be an ancient river bed, which we could tell by the way the formation was shaped and the types of rocks we found there, and we also found some awesome stuff, like fossilized whale bones, that were trapped when layers of deposited sediment eventually hardened into rock.

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Look it’s a whale bone!

Whale bones are super awesome, but the most fascinating thing about the entire field trip was that when we got to the beach, our professor was surprised to find that the normal sandy route to the rock formation was underwater. The entire class clambered over some large boulders to the rock formation, only to give our professor another surprise – the bottom 10 feet of the formation was newly uncovered rock that had previously been covered with sand. In six years of bringing his class to this exact site, our professor had never seen this newly exposed section of rock.

So what happened?

As it turns out, El Niño had some tricks up its sleeve. This phenomenon had brought a much more stormy winter to California, and the combination of several big storms had removed ten feet of sand on this beach and swept it all out to sea, leaving ten more feet at the base of this rock formation exposed. We could tell this section was newly exposed because we saw tell-tale iron-red rust, which is a form of weathering that can only happen when rock is exposed to oxygen in the air.

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The next weekend, I went skiing in the Sierras at Squaw Valley, which made me feel exceptionally lucky to get to visit both the beach and mountains in the span of just a few days – one of the many benefits of living in California. Although nothing can beat Colorado snow, I was so impressed by the amount and quality of the snow up there. It was a world of difference from two winters ago, when I went skiing at Heavenly with my freshman dorm and was running into rocks from the lack of snow and peeling off all my layers because it was so hot.

Why is there so much snow in California this year? You guessed it, El Niño’s at it again. Although we are not located in the Southern Pacific, where El Niño effects are the strongest, we are affected by jet streams, which are essentially just strong winds. El Niño affects the southern jet stream, so instead of hitting the Pacific Northwest, it ends up in California, bringing with it more rain on the coast and more snow in the mountains. But while the increased precipitation we’ve seen over the past few months is definitely helping our drought, it is far from over.

 

This year’s El Niño has been pretty strong so far, but will likely weaken into the spring and be gone by summer. And while the El Niño phenomenon is not linked to climate change, it does affect our global climate and may be exacerbated by or coupled with climate change in the coming decades to produce some wacky weather here on Earth. I really enjoyed the very natural changes brought about by El Niño this year – I got to find newly exposed whale bones and ski in some fresh powder – but this may all change when human activity catches up to this ancient cycle.